If you tally up every offensive lineman drafted by the NFL in the first round this decade, you find a pretty predictable assortment of players. There are 47 players that were drafted to play OL in that period. Three of them were 0-star guys that flew under the radar, including two walk-ons. Another three were similarly overlooked 2-star guys. Then there were 16 3-stars drafted, 19 4-stars, and six 5-star recruits.
That’s a pretty solid correlation to the service rankings and a major reason for it is that many of the skills that make for desirable NFL prospects are genetic in nature and often apparent on a high schooler’s frame and film. Those attributes can be largely summed up as quick feet attached to a big, well-coordinated body.
The name of the game in today’s NFL is pass protection so many of the league’s guards are converted college tackles. College offenses often only have one athlete with enough length and quickness to be trusted on an island in protection and he’s going to be found at left tackle.
Another factor that plays heavily into the NFL eval process these days is whether a player has any film and experience lining up in a three point stance (hand in the dirt). This is a major reason that Iowa is such a pipeline for NFL prospects along the OL, they teach their linemen to execute the NFL’s beloved zone blocking schemes from that stance.
And perhaps just as importantly, they teach them to make their pass drops from that stance whereas a spread passing team may never ask their linemen to get their hand in the dirt whether it’s a run or pass.
Obviously though there are college teams that don’t depend heavily on pass protection to win games nor on doing so from a three point stance so that they can more easily disguise whether they’re bringing a run play or not.
The overlap between “great NFL prospect” and “great college player” isn’t one to one and that’s evident when looking at some of the best college OL over the years.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the better collegiate OL units of this last decade and how they were comprised.
The NFL’s favorite
Whenever someone does a long think piece, if it hasn’t happened already, on why Johnny Manziel’s amazing achievements at Texas A&M didn’t translate to the NFL there should be at least a footnote on the offensive line that blocked for him back in 2012.
It was as follows:
LT: Luke Joeckel: 6-6, 312. Junior. 4-star recruit. First round draft pick.
LG: Jarvis Harrison: 6-4, 330. Redshirt junior. 2-star recruit. Fifth round draft pick.
OC: Patrick Lewis: 6-1, 305. Senior. 3-star recruit. Undrafted free agent signing.
RG: Cedric Ogbuehi. 6-5, 310. Redshirt sophomore. 4-star recruit. First round draft pick.
RT: Jake Matthews: 6-5, 309. Junior. 4-star recruit. First round draft pick.
What was particularly amazing about this bunch is that in 2013, Joeckel was drafted in the first round and the Aggies slid Ogbuehi out to right tackle and Matthews over to left tackle. This led to Matthews being taken in the first round in the following draft and being replaced at left tackle by Ogbuehi...who’s senior year at that spot led to him also being drafted in the first round the year after that.
The 2012 season, in which he had three future first round left tackles across his OL, saw Johnny regularly sitting back in clean pockets before hitting future first round pick WR Mike Evans down the field.
Not to say Manziel wasn’t talented, but his scrambling and decision-making process in the pocket were made all the more devastating playing behind pass protectors that would be the envy of many NFL signal-callers. Alabama blitzed him as much as they could and struggled to get any quick pressure on him at all, quick pressure that was essential since A&M regularly had five receivers out running patterns.
This crew was largely assembled thanks to the highly discerning eye of Mike Sherman and OL coach Jim Turner (now returned) who played both Matthews and Joeckel early so that they were highly experienced by 2012 when Kevin Sumlin was in charge. They didn’t really run the ball like a normal, highly praised college OL, this was a rather unique and uniquely applied unit.
The “old school” standard
This decade has seen two particularly dominant OL of the “line up under center, smash them in the mouth, then throw it over their heads on play-action” variety. The 2010 Stanford Cardinal and the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers.
The Cardinal had numerous achievements that season, beyond going 12-1 they produced three All-Americans and yielded only six sacks on QB Andrew Luck all season. Here was their unit:
LT: Jonathan Martin: 6-6, 304. Redshirt sophomore. 3-star recruit. Second round draft pick.
LG: Andrew Phillips: 6-5, 302. Redshirt senior. 3-star recruit. No pro career.
OC: Chase Beeler: 6-3, 285. Redshirt senior. 3-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
RG: David DeCastro: 6-5, 310. Redshirt sophomore. 3-star recruit. First round draft pick.
RT: Derek Hall: 6-5, 303. Redshirt senior. 3-star recruit (DE). Undrafted free agent.
Since those days Stanford has become a national recruiting power, regularly collecting four and five-star linemen from all around the country. However this peak line was built via Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno (both now at Michigan) having good eyes for big, raw kids that could be developed and then using redshirts and time under their strength program and coaching to turn them into monsters. You’ll also notice that Derek Hall was a converted DL, a re-occuring theme you’ll see.
The size of this group stands out as everyone but Chase Beeler had tackle size, which aided their ability to be so strong in pass protection.
The 2011 Wisconsin OL had four All-Americans and paved the way for Russell Wilson and Montee Ball to have historic seasons while the Badgers went 11-3. Their front looked like this:
LT: Ricky Wagner. 6-6, 320. Redshirt junior. Walk on. Fifth round draft pick
LG: Travis Frederick. 6-4, 330. Redshirt sophomore. 3-star recruit. First round draft pick.
OC: Peter Konz. 6-5, 315. Redshirt junior. 3-star recruit. Second round draft pick
RG: Kevin Zeitler. 6-4, 315. Senior. 3-star recruit. First round draft pick
RT: Josh Oglesby. 6-7, 330. Redshirt senior. 5-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
This mix is a pretty typical looking Wisconsin bunch, all five of them hailed from within the state and in normal Wisconsin fashion one of them was well recognized (Oglesby) while another was overlooked and worked his way up from the walk on ranks (Ricky Wagner).
Like the Stanford bunch, these guys were big, redshirted veterans developed within a program that was all about being the biggest and meanest team in the trenches every week. All of that talent and the pairing with Russell Wilson and Montee Ball in the backfield earned them a Big 10 championship but regular season losses to Michigan State and Ohio State spoiled their shot at a national championship.
Most of the better and more talented college lines didn’t coincide with national championships for the simple reason that national champions generally have to be good to great at every position in order to achieve perfect or near-perfect seasons.
The best way to achieve that is not to have occasional super OL but to be consistently very good, which of course requires a catered system. The Stanford and Wisconsin OL are pretty consistently good but both have unique recruiting advantages that make their systems feasible. Stanford has a national recruiting angle while Wisconsin is situated as the only major college in a good-sized state filled with OL prospects, many of whom are even in the walk on ranks like Ramcyzk.
Some fantastic college lines
Here are a pair of very good college lines that were a part of championship seasons while plugging in talent to a sustainable, college system. The first is the 2013 SEC champions and national runner-up Auburn Tigers:
LT: 73 Greg Robinson: 6-5 320. Sophomore. 4-star recruit. First round draft pick.
LG: 63 Alex Kozan: 6-4 297. Redshirt freshman. 4-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
C: 50 Reese Dismukes: 6-3 297. Junior. 4-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
RG: 62 Chad Slade: 6-5 313. Junior. 3-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
RT: 56 Avery Young: 6-6 304. Redshirt freshman. 4-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
The Tigers OL in 2013 were all pretty well regarded as recruits but none of them drew much attention from the NFL save for the ultra-athletic Greg Robinson, who’s only now even finding any success at the pro level.
What they were was very well chosen and developed for the Gus Malzahn offense, which used power option schemes to create angles to create angles for these guys to clear out linebackers. A similar group was assembled in Columbus and won the Buckeyes their title back in 2015.
LT: Taylor Decker: 6-7, 315. Junior. 5-star recruit. First round draft pick
LG: Billy Price. 6-4, 312. Redshirt freshman. 4-star recruit (DT). Still in school.
OC: Jacoby Boren. 6-1, 290. Junior. 3-star recruit. Undrafted free agent.
RG: Pat Elfein. 6-3, 300. Redshirt sophomore. 3-star recruit. Third round draft pick.
RT: Darryl Baldwin. 6-6, 307. Redshirt Senior. 3-star recruit (DE). Undrafted free agent.
One notable trait to this OL was that every single one of them was recruited from the state of Ohio, another is that two of them were converted DL. Many good college OL don’t play that position in high school. Some hadn’t filled out their frames enough to be obvious OL, like OU first round LT Lane Johnson that played quarterback in high school, and others are DL that go from being of average athleticism on defense to being plus athletes on offense.
Like Malzahn’s offense, the Urban Meyer system worked with spread formations and option concepts to help give the OL favorable angles in the run game, which then created opportunities to throw off play-action.
Both Malzahn and Meyer regularly recruit and develop talented players along the OL but they aren’t necessarily loading up with ideal NFL prospects. They’re grabbing players that can thrive in their schemes to allow their offenses to be consistently good from year to year.
You have to wonder if drawing players from the same state can have a role in creating an extra-cohesive offensive line, and given the level of chemistry required to play OL at a high level that theory can’t be dismissed lightly. Two of our lines mentioned fit those parameters, the 2011 Badgers and the 2014 Buckeyes.
2017’s best offensive line?
There are two obvious contenders for this honor, but you never know when a converted DL or three-year program vet who hasn’t started yet will step in and turn a good offensive line unit into a great one. The lines listed above often relied on guys that were unknowns before the season, such is the nature of college football.
The first contender for 2017’s best is the Alabama Crimson Tide, who are always great along the OL and who’s 2012 unit is also in contention for being the best unit of this decade. Their 2017 group will probably go as follows:
LT: Jonah Williams: 6-5, 301. Sophomore. 5-star recruit.
LG: Ross Pierschbacher: 6-4, 298. Redshirt junior. 4-star recruit.
OC: Bradley Bozeman: 6-5, 314. Redshirt senior. 3-star recruit.
RG: Lester Cotton: 6-4, 319. Junior. 4-star recruit.
RT: Matt Womack: 6-7, 326. Redshirt sophomore. 3-star recruit.
In a nice ode to the developmental and less clear nature of OL evals, Alabama has regularly plugged in 3-star recruits along their better offensive lines in the Nick Saban era. Bradley Bozeman was arguably the best and most consistent member of the 2016 national runner-up team’s OL and returns to anchor things this season. Jonah Williams is your standard “blue chip recruit who makes good immediately” and he’s sliding over to left tackle to replace Alabama’s last “blue chip recruit who makes good immediately” Cam Robinson.
Alabama should be very good along the OL this coming season because the Bozeman-Pierschbacher-Williams left flank is very experienced and proven while they have guys plugging in along the right side that have been in Saban’s program for three years. Saban has tended to do things more like Malzahn or Meyer along the OL, emphasizing execution of the run game and a few key schemes and concepts so as to allow consistently good play from year to year.
The other obvious contender for top OL is the Oklahoma Sooner unit which goes as follows:
LT: Orlando Brown: 6-8, 345. Redshirt junior. 3-star recruit.
LG: Ben Powers: 6-4, 310. Junior. 3-star JUCO recruit.
OC: Erik Wren: 6-1, 306. Redshirt senior. JUCO transfer/walk-on.
RG: Dru Samia: 6-4, 300. Junior. 4-star recruit.
RT: Bobby Evans: 6-4, 312. Redshirt sophomore. 4-star recruit.
This wasn’t a particularly highly touted group of recruits but they all started a year ago for Oklahoma when the Sooners had arguably the best offense in college football. Orlando Brown is considered a likely 2018 draft pick and Bobby Evans and Ben Powers were standouts and All-Big 12 honorable mentions in 2016 as first year starters.
The Sooners are similar to some of the other college-style offenses listed here in terms of how they base around spread formations and a few key concepts to guarantee consistent, high level execution from year to year. This isn’t one of their larger units but they have a knack for fielding one of the bigger and more powerful lines in the Big 12 every season and leaning on the fact that their conference opponents typically don’t have DL that can go toe to toe with big bodies like Orlando Brown for four quarters.
Offensive line is an essential element to championship football, but there’s a lot of ways to construct a line and it’s not always clear which ones will prove best at the college level in a given year. What method do you think will produce the best line in 2017?